The Yukaghirs

The Yukagirs are the indigenous people of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Several millennia ago, Yukaghir tribes inhabited the entire territory of modern Yakutia and border areas. The traditional culture of the Yukagirs began to take shape in the Late Neolithic with the participation of alien groups mainly from Transbaikalia and southern Siberia. At that time, the settlement territory stretched from south to north from the Baikal region to the tundra zone of the Arctic coast, from the Yenisei in the west to Chukotka and the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk in the east. Subsequently, under the onslaught of the tribal groups of the Tungus, Mongols, and Turks, the indigenous people were forced to retreat to the north and northeast of Yakutia, where in the 17th century they were met by Russian explorers – Cossacks and industrial people during the development of the expanses of northeast Asia by the Russian state.

From Russian documents of the 17th-18th centuries, it is known that the Yukaghir tribes bore the following names: kogime (коҕимэ), alayi (алайи), omoki (омоки), olyubensy (олюбенцы), yandyri (яндыри), yanga (янга), onoydi (онойди), shoromboyi/koromoyi (шоромбои/коромои), chuvans (чуванцы), khodyntsy (ходынцы), anauls (анаулы), lavrentsy (лавренцы). The indigenous people lived along the Arctic coast along the Anabar Rivers, the lower course of Lena, Yana, Indigirka, Kolyma, Anadyr Rivers and their tributaries. Researchers suggest that twelve Yukagir-speaking tribes (peoples) may belong to a separate Yukaghir group within the Uralic language family.

The Yukagirs call themselves Odun/Waduŋ (одуŋ/вадуŋ) Omni “Yukaghir people” (Odul/Vadul in the meaning of “Yukagir”, “strong, mighty”; the common name of all tribes is Omo “people”). Researchers agree that in the middle of the 17th century the Yukagirs were 5-6 thousand people.

  The traditional activities of the indigenous nomadic people are hunting, fishing and gathering. Apart from a dog, they have no pets. 

Flooded Yasachnaya River. D.G. Dyachkov on a traditional shuttle made of boards. Photo: L.N. Zhukova

The pioneer in the study of the Yukaghir culture is V.I. Yokhelson – a scientist and political exile to the Yakutsk Oblast. In the late 19th-early 20th centuries, as part of several scientific expeditions, he studied the peoples of the Arctic, including visiting the places of settlement of the kogime (коҕимэ), who roamed in the upper reaches of the Kolyma River, and alayi (алайи) in the lower Kolyma. The Upper Kolyma or forest Yukagirs retained their traditional hunting and fishing economy, the Lower Kolyma Yukagirs of the tundra borrowed reindeer husbandry from neighboring peoples (Tungus, Chukchi).

Alayi (алайи) Yukaghirs in front of dwelling. End of 19th – beginning of 20th centuries. Photo: V.I. Jochelson

Chuvans are Russified Yukagirs of the Anadyr River valley in the west of Chukotka. In the 18th-19th centuries, they lost their native language by mixing with the Russian population. Another part of Chuvans uses the Chukchi language. Information about other Ural-speaking tribes in the north of Yakutia is scarce and contradictory.

      По статистическим данным XX – начала XXI вв. родной язык и традиционную культуру сохраняют юкагиры коҕимэ и алайи верхней и нижней Колымы. Местами компактного расселения являются село Нелемное в Верхнеколымском улусе (районе), село Андрюшкино и поселок Черский в Нижнеколымском улусе (районе). В этих населенных пунктах дети изучают родной язык в школьных программах начиная с младших классов.   

The main game animals are tolou (толоу) "elk", "wild deer". Among the forest Yukagirs, hunting for moose is associated with the cold season, however, hunting during the entire annual fishing season is not excluded. Taboo names are chomolben (чомолбэн) “as if big”, chuul (чуул) “meat”, chomon chuul (чомон чуул) “big meat”, piedye (пиэдьэ) “small mountain”. In the past, the termination of hunting for these animals and failure in other types of trades meant a hunger strike, therefore, hunting and everything related to the elk was accompanied by many rituals, prohibitions and amulets (making skis, catching and cutting carcasses, transporting them, burying the remains, banning hunting animal in excess of the necessary). The cult attitude towards tolou (толоу) is fixed in religious beliefs, mythology, folklore; paramount importance in economic life and outlook indicate the chronological depth and age of the hunting tradition.

Butchering an animal's leg in front of fire, Yasachnaya River. Photo: L.N. Zhukova

For the hunting groups of the lower reaches of the northern rivers in the forest-tundra and tundra conditions, the crossing of thousands of wild reindeer herds molle (моллэ) or mole (молэ) across the rivers was the main source of food, along with fishing. It was a huge fishing niche, in spring thousands of reindeer swam across rivers, heading from the forests to the tundra and islands, and in the fall back. During the crossings, the Yukagirs killed hundreds of them. The importance of fishing for wild reindeer afloat did not diminish at all at the beginning of the 20th century.

     They also hunted the wilding with the help of manschik (the imitation of an animal, which is used in the hunt for this animal to lure it) or with specially trained dogs. Having found a herd of wild deer, the hunters drove them with the help of dogs into the lake. When the herd tried to cross it, several more dogs were unleashed from the opposite shore of the lake, which prevented the deer from getting to land. Then boat hunters set about stabbing animals with spears. The Yukagirs also engaged in fishing in the lower reaches of the northern rivers.

      Approximately starting from the 16th century, reindeer husbandry is spreading among the Yukagirs of the tundra part.

The fishing season lasts from the spring opening of the rivers in May to the autumn freeze-up. In the past, ice fishing was not known. Fishing tools and means were varied. One of the oldest and most productive methods was the complete or partial blockage of the river across the hedge (in Russian "yoz" (ёз), "zayozok" (заёзок)) with inserted wicker willow traps for fish (in Russian "morda" (морда), "korchaga" (корчага)). They used braided willow nets, seines, fishing rods.

Lock for fish on Nelemnaya River using braided nets. End of 19th – beginning of 20th centuries. Photo: V.I. Jochelson

The only domestic animals for a long time were dogs, the domestication of the wolf dates back to the Paleolithic time. Dogs performed various functions, the main of which was hunting. They were also harnessed to vehicles during migrations.

 The oldest housings  were seasonal – dwellings, semi-dwellings, conical huts, raw-hide tents (a portable dwelling of nomadic reindeer herders in the form of a conical frame made of poles, covered in winter with reindeer skins, in summer with birch bark or sod). Ritual huts were made of willow or larch. From the second half of the 18th century, they began to build wooden log cabins, known as "Yakut house" and "Russian house".

Traditional conical “Yukaghir house”. Photo: L.N. Zhukova

 Transport is distinguished between summer and winter. In summer, they used exclusively water vehicles. At the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries, they made rafts and boats of various sizes, purposes and designs. At present, the forest Yukagirs have only a fishing shuttle for short-distance travel; purchased duralumin boats of factory production are indispensable for long-distance trips.

 

    In winter, skiing and sledging are traditional. The skis are covered with skins and fur outside; there is always one staff included with them. Snowshoe skis have long gone out of use, and have been replaced by bare skis. In the past, tradesmen had hand sleds, while 1-3 dogs were harnessed to sleds during winter migrations and for household needs.

In the past, household items and weapons were made from natural materials as stone, bone, horn, wood. For hunting and war, they used bows with arrows, spears, stone axes and darts. Yukagirs began to receive metal products, large beads and jewelry from neighboring peoples in exchange for furs. It is assumed that the nomadic Tungus were intermediaries in the exchange in kind. Apparently, iron weapons originally appeared among the Yukagirs as war trophies during clashes with alien tribes who possessed iron combat items. Subsequently, their own master blacksmiths appeared.

Простой лук со стрелами. Макеты. Материалы Л.Н. Жуковой

The ancient clothing of the Yukagirs was kuhlyanka, the clothing without a cut. With the resettlement of alien tribes on the territory of Yakutia, swinging shoulder clothes with a bib appeared in the wardrobe. It has a lot in common with the tungus caftan: a swinging caftan made of rovduga (shamois from reindeer or elk skin among the peoples of the North and Siberia) or fur, a bib, a belt, leather pants, stockings or socks, a headdress. This set is distinguished by a large number of different kinds of insulation. Clothes were decorated with appliqués made of skins, fur trim, deer hair embroidery, and later with beads and metal pendants. It was painted with smoke, alder and clay. The clothes were dominated by black, red and white tones. Summer shoes were made of rovduga, winter shoes were made of skins.

Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs in Tungus type of clothing. Photo: V.I. Jochelson

      Summer seasonal gatherings, which usually lasted about a month, included festivities, games, dances, and various sports.

  Nowadays, the forest Yukaghirs-Oduls retain essentially a Neolithic, appropriating type of economic activity. One of the main phenomena of the Yukaghir culture is the functioning of full-blooded paganism, a pagan picture of the world on the edge of an urbanized modern society.

  The Yukaghir culture is one of the oldest in the North-East of Russia; it has a history of many thousands of years.

    Common elements in language, folklore, material and spiritual culture are found with the Samoyedic people of Western Siberia, Chukchi and Koryaks of the Far North-East of Asia, Tungus (Evenks and Evens), and Yakuts. Throughout the 20th century, the influence of Russian culture increased more and more. Such a multi-component nature significantly complicates the identification and study of the Yukaghir cultural layer itself.

     Truncated, fragmentary, archived elements of all historical epochs experienced by the People are contained in all spheres of the industrial, household, and spiritual life of the People. Heirs’ pagan culture of the circumpolar northern civilization is not a historical anachronism, it carries a powerful potential for the future. All areas of the Yukaghir culture keep the great secret of life, the secret of national and cultural longevity. This energy feeds intellectual, spiritual forces of the Peoples, which included the Yukaghir component as an aboriginal cultural layer.

     Knowledge of the fundamental worldview foundations and natural philosophy of the ancient circumpolar civilization is useful for our society, immersed in moral and environmental problems.

Compiled by L.N. Zhukova, the Candidate of Historical Sciences